“Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at his disposition, and listening to his voice in the depth of our hearts.” (attributed to Mother Teresa)
There are at least two big problems with the Mother Teresa definition.
- This is not the biblical definition of prayer.
- This is not even the biblical definition of guidance.
On the second one see a recent session on guidance. On prayer, the definition flies completely in the face of the biblical evidence which points overwhelmingly towards prayer as an activity of asking God. Look at all of the apostle Paul’s prayers. Look at the illustrations of prayer that Jesus gives in Luke 11:5-13. Asking for bread… whoever asks receives… if your son asks for a fish… give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. For a fuller argument look at the first chapter of Jensen and Payne’s Prayer and the Voice of God.
It is true that prayer should be accompanied with thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6) and it is natural if it starts in praise (e.g. Neh. 1:5; Isa. 37:16; Acts 4:24; the collects of the 1662 BCP) and it is appropriate if it is often shot through with confession (e.g. the prayers of Ezra and Nehemiah and Daniel) but the heart, the sine qua non of prayer is asking God. The posture is one of need and desperate dependence and the expression is in meaningful words, by the Spirit, through the Son to the Father.
It is also true that in the process of praying often God works on us and changes our perspective and desires so that we come out of prayer a different person than we went in – with a new perspective and joy and appreciation of this God we are praying to (e.g. some of the Psalms seem to show a development of thought). There is a special grace and peace beyond understanding promised to pray-ers (Phil. 4:7). But fundamentally prayer is not therapy or a means of listening to God’s voice. Prayer is asking.
The direction of prayer
The dynamics of biblical religion are: first God speaks to us and reveals himself and we are to listen; then we speak back to God and he (wonderfully) listens to us. First God blesses his creatures; then his creatures respond in dependent asking. First God makes gracious promises to his people; then his people respond in faith by asking him to do what he has promised.
There are loads of biblical examples of this – it is really the whole structure of creation and salvation – but one nice example I saw the other day is the incident recorded in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. Nathan the prophet brings God’s Word to David – a word of spectacular blessing and promise. Then David “went in and sat before the Lord” – a beautiful picture of intimacy with the Lord God. And what does he do there? Just sit and listen? No. He has already heard God’s voice through Nathan and now he prays, in humble words, back to God. It is a prayer full of praise and astonishment and gratitude but at it’s heart – the climax it builds up to – is a request that God would “do what you have promised and bless the house of your servant.”
The problem with the Mother Teresa definition of prayer is that it reverses the direction. Prayer is now the down arrow where God speaks to us. This means that we simultaneously lose two precious things:
- We lose the joy of truly hearing the voice of God. We turn away from the Law and the Prophets. We shut the Bible and we expect God to speak to us in a way that he has not promised to do. We turn to intuitions and imaginations rather than turning to the clear voice of the Bridegroom speaking from the Spirit-breathed Word (John 3:29; 6:63; 10:16; 20:30-31).
- We lose the joy of asking our Father for what we need. Instead of entering that great privilege of sitting before our Heavenly Father who loves us and pouring out our needs and fears and interceding for our brothers and sisters; instead of asking him, as little children, for him to do what is best – instead of that we refuse to talk – almost like an angry and rebellious child who won’t answer his parent and thinks ‘I don’t need anything from you’ or ‘You already know what I need anyway so why should I bother to ask’ or ‘I’m not happy with what you’ve already told me (in the Bible) so I’m waiting for you to tell me what I want to hear.’
Let’s grasp hold of the great joy of listening to the Bible and then speaking to the Father.